Empire of Borders

An excerpt from Tucson author Todd Miller’s new book, which explores how borders are being fortified against the poor while being erased for the wealthy and powerful

The border fence
The border fence
We arrived at the Guatemalan military base in Zacapa on a hot morning in early June. In the front there was a closed gate guarded by soldiers in green jungle camouflage and floppy hats, cradling automatic weapons. Zacapa, one of 22 department capitals in the country, sits in the eastern borderlands with Honduras. Its name comes from Nahuatl; it means "river of grass." From Zacapa, if you wanted to go to Brownsville, Texas—the closest point in the United States—you'd travel almost 1,440 miles overland, mostly up Mexico's Gulf Coast highway. But if you wanted to see the U.S. border, you wouldn't need to travel at all; it has already come to this small city in Guatemala. That's why I was there.

I had come with fellow researcher and photojournalist Jeff Abbott to meet with the Chorti task force, Guatemala's new border patrol, but I wasn't at all sure they would let us in. We were two hours late. Luckily, the soldiers—who looked as if they were in their late teens—heard me out. I explained the 200-mile journey we'd taken to get to Zacapa from San Pedro Sula, where we'd been the day before. I told them that the buses in Honduras didn't run at night and the bus driver this morning decided to have a 45-minute breakfast (I was wary about adding this last detail because, really, how could I blame him? But I had to build my case). I told them about the delay at the international border. They nodded because they knew. They knew what it was to travel, to move, to migrate, especially across international borders—so fraught with difficulties, including an endless string of checkpoints. At the Zacapa base, I wondered if any of the soldiers who stood before me, someone perhaps from one of Guatemala's many poor communities, would be permitted entry into the United States. I wondered how many had tried.

click to enlarge Empire  of Borders
Courtesy photo
"Empire of Borders" book cover

Indeed, the vast majority of humans on the planet are prohibited from crossing international boundaries. Most people, including in the United States, do not have passports. If you do have one and you are from the United States, United Kingdom, France, or Germany—among several other countries—you can freely travel to approximately 160 countries without a visa. However, if you don't have a visa and are from Iraq or Afghanistan, doors will be slammed shut in all but approximately thirty. As a U.S. citizen, I did not need a visa to enter Guatemala, but Guatemalans—including the soldiers before me— would need one to get into the United States. And most people in the world's Global South—from places like the Americas, Asia, and Africa—do not meet the requirements to get a visa in the first place. For example, to acquire a visitor visa to the United States if you are from most places (excluding Europe, Canada, and some wealthier Asian nations), you have to pay exorbitant application fees, wait in long lines, even travel to distant cities to complete the process. Then you have to convince a consular officer that you have no plans to stay in the United States, that you have a stable job or profitable business, that you have money in a bank account, that you own a home or property. "Many people who would like to visit don't bother applying, since they expect to be rejected," write immigration experts Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson.

Although a bustling international airport might seem to tell another story, according to the educated guess of a former director of the Safety, Air Transport Association, only 6 percent of the world's population boards an airplane in any given year. Much as there is a yawning global gap in wealth, there is also an enormous chasm between those who have freedom of movement and those who do not. "For most of the world's population," writes historian Aviva Chomsky, the "freedom to travel is a distant dream."

We live in a world of the included and the excluded, of those who can vacation (and do business) where they please and those who are walled in by borders and armed guards. And many of those armed guards, as was clearly the case with the soldiers at the Zacapa base, would themselves be prevented from crossing a good percentage of the globe's political borders.

In Zacapa, we waited while one of the soldiers made phone calls. We tried to find shade under the corrugated metal roof overhanging the front gate. From where we stood there was a view of a parched mountain, with "Segunda Brigada de Infanteria C.G.R.C." (Second Infantry Brigade) inscribed on the ground on the side of the mountain, in large white letters amid bushes and small, shrubby trees under what looked like a cell tower. The military base was in the Central American dry corridor—a long swath of territory that extended into Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and as far as Panama—and at this very moment, in June 2015, they were experiencing a historic drought. For small farmers in the region, the drought was going to eat away harvests, leaving hunger in a place that climate scientist Chris Castro called "ground zero" for climate change in the Americas. These droughts have persisted now for years (in 2009, Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom declared a "state of calamity," or a famine), and according to Castro, if climate-changing trends continue, it will get worse. Not only has the planet's earth-altering era of climate change, which some call the Anthropocene, been a gut punch to a place like Guatemala, it's gone hand in hand with an unprecedented thrust in border militarization across the globe. Long-term forecasts have predicted that ecological upheavals are going to drive unparalleled levels of human migration. I had plenty of time to think about all this while we waited for permission.

Finally the soldier making the calls returned. "Are you with BORTAC?"

I was stunned. Had I heard him correctly?

There was only one possible way that the soldier could have known about BORTAC—the U.S. Border Patrol special forces and tactical unit. Agents of BORTAC must have stood at this gate before. Even in the United States, very few people knew about BORTAC's SWAT- style operations in the U.S. borderlands, or about its "global response capacity." Fewer still were aware that BORTAC had conducted "training and operations both in the United States and in other countries in furtherance of the U.S. Border Patrol's mission."

"No," I said, looking down at my wrinkled, half-tucked shirt. BORTAC agents were the U.S. Border Patrol's robocops. They had to do rigorous physical testing involving sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups; 1.5-mile runs; and pistol qualification. The training was designed to "mirror aspects of the U.S. Special Operation Forces' selection courses." BORTAC has played a big part in pushing out the U.S. borders abroad. It supported U.S. military actions such as Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. BORTAC agents trained the Iraqi border police and its tactical team from 2006 to 2011, serving as advisors and working alongside Iraqi border patrol in the field. "Clearly, this was a critical mission," said the magazine Tactical Life, "because the Iraqi Border Police are responsible for preventing smugglers, insurgents, weapons, or the money needed to fund terrorist organizations from entering their country."

In Iraq, U.S. boundary-building efforts began even before BORTAC's arrival, in 2004, with an operation labeled "Phantom Linebacker" in which 15,000 Iraqi border guards were trained to patrol in—as the name of the operation indicates—the spirit of American football. BORTAC's operations were hardly limited to Iraq: They had extended around the globe to places like Jordan, Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, Peru, Panama, Belize, Mexico, Kenya, Costa Rica, Ukraine, Kosovo, Argentina, Honduras, Ecuador, Armenia, Tajikistan, and, of course, Guatemala.

During international training operations, BORTAC (often as part of a larger Customs and Border Protection team) was doctor, diagnosis, and prescription. As one CBP trainer told me later, they would "travel and see the border operations in various countries and make an assessment of their border security, and make recommendations on what could be done to improve their security." The CBP team would then present the plan to either the U.S. DHS or State Department and make recommendations for changes and funding for training, assistance, or equipment. In most cases, the countries would agree to what CBP prescribed.

"It's a rewarding job," said the trainer, who wished to remain anonymous.

In the twenty-first century, hardened borders are proliferating throughout the globe, with much-touted proclamations that they are meant to protect the individual countries' sovereignty. Often, however, the lines of division are established at the behest and insistence of the United States (or the European Union or Australia) with much more lofty goals in mind, associated with global power dynamics. Consider the words of George Kennan, the first director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. He caught the dynamics of who and what would be protected perfectly in 1948: "We have to accept a certain unchallengeable antagonism between 'him that has' and 'him that has not' in this world." While at the time hardened borders were almost unknown in the United States and the rest of the world, Kennan set the conceptual stage for what was to come in terms of a U.S. structure of power and domination in the postwar world.

Empire  of Borders
Courtesy photo
The border fence

Indeed, almost 75 years later, the evidence of U.S. international border expansion is everywhere. A major general I spoke to in Amman, Jordan, mentioned Highway 90, a locally known route between Tucson, Arizona and the Fort Huachuca military base. How did one of Jordan's top border experts know about that? Well maybe because Fort Huachuca was a launching place for Customs and Border Protection's Predator B drones, which conducted surveillance on the U.S.'s southern border. In the Philippines, a coast guard commander told me, as we stood next to a command watch center constructed by Raytheon Corporation with U.S. funds, that he had attended a big homeland security conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. The architect of the West Bank wall in Israel-Palestine, Israeli Colonel Danny Tirza, recalled talking borders with sheriffs in Texas. "I have very good connection with the sheriff 's union in the United States," Tirza told my colleague and author Gabriel Schivone in an interview. "If the sheriffs in the United States have one thing in common with the Israelis, they are not polite. They are straight talkers ..." And there was the police commandant in Nairobi who maybe met those very straight-talking sheriffs in Texas during his training in the United States. He told me that he had worked on all of Kenya's borders, and he had been trained by both the United States and Israel.

There is possible evidence of U.S. border expansion in the rolling coils of razor wire now on the international boundary line of Hungary, a country that has "graduated" from the United States Export Control and Related Border Security Program (EXBS), run by the U.S. State Department, and in the Zeppelin drones on the Turkish frontiers, a country currently in the same program. As we shall see, EXBS is just one of multiple programs and fronts of the U.S. border extension juggernaut.

Before going into this project I knew the U.S. was expanding its external borders. I did not know how gargantuan these efforts were, nor how significant to U.S. strategy. Close your eyes and point to any landmass on a world map, and your finger will probably find a country that is building up its borders in some way with Washington's assistance.

It was Alan Bersin, former U.S. CBP commissioner, DHS assistant secretary, and border czar during the Clinton administration, who pinpointed when the shift toward U.S. international border policing happened and put words to the scope of the change at hand. Since 9/11, Bersin writes, there has been a shift "in our perception of borders not only as lines, but also as movements—flows of people and goods on a global scale both legally and illegally." There were international border programs before 9/11, but nothing comparable in size, scope, and impact to what was put in place afterward. Bersin doesn't mince words. He calls it a "massive paradigm change."

Indeed, the justification for this U.S. global border building can be found in two sentences of the 1,000-page 9/11 Commission Report, published in 2003:

9/11 has taught us that terrorism against Americans "over there" should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against Americans "over here." In this same sense the American homeland is the planet.

In Guatemala, on one of my earlier research trips, I was just starting to glimpse the real extent and reach of U.S. border expansion and its human impact. The new border patrols, ironically, had been given indigenous names—the Tecun Uman force, named for a great leader of the K'iche Maya, patrolled the Mexican border; the Xinca task force on the Guatemalan-Salvadoran divide. The Chorti, a Mayan people, had no involvement in drawing the border with Honduras (Spain first demarcated it in 1785, though the two countries didn't become independent until 1821), but here in Zacapa, the Chorti border force was now policing it.

And as I stared up at the parched mountain, I realized that the base was also just as much a part of the U.S. border as the wall in Nogales, Arizona, behind where mounted cameras perpetually stare into Mexico. What was happening on this Guatemalan military base, and on other bases around the world, was just as important to U.S. border strategy as the Prevention Through Deterrence policy initiated in the early 1990s, which radically altered Washington's tactics (particularly in the Caribbean and along the Mexico land divide) and completely remade the U.S. border policing apparatus. An upsurge in agents, technologies and walls blockaded people from crossing in urban areas and funneled them into potentially deadly rural locations like the Sonoran desert. With a variety of operations and recalibrations since then, there has been a breathless expansion of the U.S. border enforcement apparatus in terms of budgets, personnel, and—of course—geography. For example, in 1978 the yearly budget of the immigration and enforcement apparatus was $287 million (this was the Immigration and Naturalization Service budget that year). In 2018, if you combine Customs and Border Protection with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the total is $23 billion. Never, since the inception of the Border Patrol in 1924, has there been such growth. U.S. border zones, like Nogales, are filled with buzzing helicopters and green striped vehicles, thousands of implanted motion sensors, and the most extensive concentration of surveillance technology found anywhere in the world. However, as former DHS secretary and commander of Southern Command, General John Kelly, put it, "border security cannot be attempted as an endless series of 'goal line stands' on the one-foot line at the ports of entry or along the thousands of miles of border between this country and Mexico ... I believe the defense of the Southwest border starts 1,500 miles to the south, with Peru." In other words, the border fortifications around Zacapa were just as important to U.S. aims as the Integrated Fixed Towers, high-tech cameras, ground-sweeping radar, implanted motion sensors, checkpoints, and drones policing U.S. borderlands. It was fundamental to the paradigm change.

Michael Flynn, founder of the Global Detention Project (not the retired Army Lieutenant and former National Security Advisor for Donald Trump), in his seminal 2003 article "Dónde Está La Frontera? / Where's the Border?" was one of the first researchers to examine the post-9/11 planetary expansion of U.S. border enforcement. He described the U.S. border externalization (in the context of the global war on terror) as essentially a new way of defining and consolidating U.S. empire in the twenty-first century. "U.S. border control efforts," he argued, "have undergone a dramatic metamorphosis in recent years as the United States has attempted to implement practices aimed at stopping migrants long before they reach U.S. shores."

In this way, borders were, in a sense, being fortified against the poor, and made porous or simply erased for the wealthy and powerful. What might be called our global borders now extend not only to places like Guatemala and Mexico, but also across continents to the edges of the vast U.S. military-surveillance grid, into cyberspace, and via spinning satellites and other spying systems into space itself. As criminologist Nancy Wonders writes, "if it is more accurate to focus on the process of bordering than on borders, then the struggle is over the process of creating and proliferating borders, rather than at the site of border control."

I began writing this book during a 2012 trip to Puerto Rico. On the beautiful isla—officially a U.S. territory or, more accurately, semi-colony—I interviewed a man named Wilfredo Ramírez who represented law enforcement for Puerto Rico's Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, equivalent to the U.S. National Parks Service. Ramírez met me near the U.S. Border Patrol station, where I saw the same green striped vehicles that police the Arizona-Mexico divide patrolling Puerto Rico's west coast. It was eye-opening to witness the Border Patrol scouring this Caribbean coastline, presumably in search of undocumented people arriving in rickety boats. Ramírez worked on Mona Island, the third largest island in the Puerto Rican archipelago. Often called the Galapagos of the Caribbean, it lies 32 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic, and Ramírez told me he was deputized to police immigration, and that agents of the U.S. Border Patrol regularly came to arrest stranded, detained and undocumented people.

That's when it dawned on me: The U.S. border was much bigger, and capable of much more, than I'd thought. This was not only in terms of power and influence, but also in actual physical presence. Here in the Caribbean it "legally" reached almost to the shores of the island of Hispaniola, 1,000 miles away from the U.S. mainland.

And that was only one small example. Leaving Puerto Rico I crossed the Mona Strait to the Dominican Republic, where I learned (just as I would in Guatemala) that the United States was sending resources and providing training for a new D.R. border guard unit, known as CESFRONT (Specialized Border Security Corps), whose agents were already patrolling the Dominican-Haitian divide. The more I looked, the more I saw how much the U.S. border indeed was expanding and extending. Geographer Nancy Hiemstra has written extensively on

U.S. Coast Guard operations just outside Ecuador's coastal waters in the eastern Pacific, where it has interdicted and sunk Ecuadorian boats. This activity was particularly intense between 2002 and 2006. "Coast Guard operations in the eastern Pacific served to "push out" U.S. borders," Hiemstra wrote, "by setting a precedent for international boundary policing activities." Journalist Seth Freed Wessler writing for New York Times Magazine, described Coast Guard ships in international waters as "floating Guantánamos" in which suspected smugglers are shackled for weeks or months before facing a judge in U.S. courts.

The same international cooperation is at work along the U.S.- Canadian divide. In 2011, the United States and Canada announced their "Beyond the Border Declaration: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness," a multifaceted agreement intended to address threats "early" through "information sharing," such as the biographic and biometric information of visa applicants. The agreement also facilitated trade and integrated cross-border law enforcement into programs like Shiprider and the Integrated Border Enforcement Team, in which U.S. Border Patrol and the Canadian Royal Mounted Police do joint patrolling operations along the shared border. And inevitably it has led to much harsher application of the law. In February 2017, a Reuters photographer documented a U.S. Border Patrol agent trying to stop eight people from Sudan, including four children, from crossing into Canada through a bitterly cold snowscape, hoping to ask for asylum in the supposedly friendlier nation. "Nobody cares about us," one of the men in the group told the reporter. In May of the same year, a 57-year-old woman from Ghana died attempting to cross the Minnesota-Manitoba border, en route to Toronto to visit her five-week-old grandchild. The agreement between the United States and Canada was that a person had to have a visa from the country where they arrived first, in order to enter the other, even to win asylum cases—cases where the person could not safely return to his or her home country.

And although even by the time I visited Zacapa I could still be surprised that a soldier in a Guatemalan outpost had heard of BORTAC, no one working with U.S. Homeland Security would have been shocked. Over and over again, officials—like Bersin—have repeated the importance of externalization to U.S. border strategy. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 states that DHS must promote "information and education exchange with nations friendly to the United States in order to promote sharing of best practices and technologies relating to homeland security." CBP commissioner Robert Bonner in 2004 explained it as "extending our zone of security where we can do so, beyond our physical borders—so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense." The 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security noted that "security at home ultimately is related to security abroad: as partners protect and defend their homelands, the security of our own Homeland increases."

The Global North—a political if not a geographical north, a network of countries including the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Israel—controls four-fifths of all income amassed anywhere in the world. Border externalization, or linked border-enforcement regimes, ripples from these places of financial and political power into the world at large. This book examines the dividing lines this creates between the world's included and excluded. The wars waged along them are far away from the public eye, near train tracks in Southern Mexico, in Arizona's oven-hot summer desertscapes, grouped off the side of the two-lane road near Spanish Ceuta's militarized border with Morocco, or along the route Somalis travel south in Kenya from the Dadaab refugee camp without movement passes, avoiding checkpoints on the way. These wars are resisted by the thousands of Syrians unable to cross into Jordan and caught at the "Berm," a makeshift refugee camp that grew by the thousands, even tens of thousands, in 2016. They are resisted by the West Bank Palestinians anxiously awaiting the correct moment at dawn to climb over the towering cement wall that surrounds and encloses Palestine. And by filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, who documented their attempt in The Infiltrators, and who took a sledgehammer and chisel to that wall. As humanitarian Paul Currion has said, the border has become the new "antiballistic missile system": a weapon of the powerful deployed against the displaced and the dispossessed, the most important and most hidden battlefield of the twenty-first century.

The global border system is too vast to be encompassed in the pages of this book, and so I have limited my investigation to the United States and its policies and practices. Its ever evolving and growing program has largely escaped scrutiny, as media discussions around borders in the United States at least since 2016 have focused on the extravagant campaign promises of President Donald Trump, including the 50 foot, two thousand mile, concrete wall. However, the "new" U.S.-Mexico border exists not only along the southern border but around the world. In examining this massive security apparatus, I hope to clarify what and who, indeed, it really protects, and is meant to protect; who profits by it, what it means for the geopolitics of a twenty-first century mired not only in endemic inequality but also in persistent ecological disaster; and, finally, who is challenging and organizing against it, and trying to tear it down.

The investigation begins in Central America and Israel-Palestine, with the U.S. training and arming of other nations' border forces, and the burgeoning global homeland security market and industry. It moves to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the west coast of Puerto Rico, and the harbors of Manila Bay in the Philippines, all examples of the racialized, colonial history of political borders and how they are embedded into the concept of private property.

From there, it travels to a CBP preclearance site in Vancouver, then to a homeland security convention in Paris where I heard a future of sophisticated new techniques projected to forward the goal of open borders for privileged individuals and powerful corporations and closed ones for the poor and oppressed.

That trip to the future was no detour: It is important to emphasize that this is an evolving subject, in constant dynamic change. My research produced many surprises, which I try to capture in these pages. In Ramtha, Jordan, on the Syrian border, an enforcement project infused with hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars and led by Raytheon Corp. seemed to foreshadow that shoot-anything-that-moves border of the future, necessary to maintain the status quo of a segregated, unsustainable world. Yet I also found the greater region around Ramtha to be home to some of the fiercest resistance to borders, ranging from insurrections to artistic rebellion to the subtle subversion of hospitality.

Finally, I describe the borderscapes of the African continent, from Ceuta on the Northern coast of Morocco to Kenya and its fringes, one of the most vulnerable places in the world to climate disruption, and discuss why climate change offers the most complete and coherent argument for dissolving our world's hardened militarized borders and to imagine something new.

Back in Guatemala, the soldiers finally let us pass. Col. Obed Lopez, the military commander of the Chorti, had agreed to speak with us. They escorted us to a shelter opposite a thin airstrip that also served as Zacapa's airport. While we waited we watched soldiers march in perfect lockstep, backdropped by that same mountain that spoke to a world on the brink of severe environmental shifts. Col. Lopez arrived, out of uniform, wearing a white T-shirt drenched with sweat, and earmuffs—he'd come directly from the shooting range. He had already been to Guatemala City and back that day, departing at 3 a.m. to run in an early morning race. Despite this, his energy was high and exu- berant. He led us to his office, where he began to talk quickly and excitedly about the history of the extension of the U.S. border into Guatemala. Nothing could be greater or more positive.

It was a "massive paradigm change," but here in Guatemala there was nothing new about the United States, behind the scenes, direct- ing the show. The U.S. border was much bigger than a border wall. The American homeland, after all, was the planet. ■